Giant Panders and Lesser Panders

Thirty-two years ago today, on July 15, 1981, Baltimore’s larger-than-life mayor, William Donald Shaefer, made his legendary descent—in striped swimsuit and straw boater—into the seal pool at the National Aquarium.

The new facility on the city’s reviving Inner Harbor was itself wearing a hat of sorts: a glass pyramid filled with greenery. As C. Fraser Smith writes in his biography of the colorful, volatile mayor (and later governor), Schaefer “was determined to give his aquarium a crowning innovation. It would feature not only an angular geometric design of glassed-in shark tanks and aquatic habitat, but also a roof-level exhibition of tropical vegetation and exotic birds: a rain forest in Baltimore.”

Schaefer’s rain forest is what I call a “giant pander,” a major initiative conceived primarily to attract a particular audience, expand the total audience, or both. The term, which puns on the pandas that zoos have long competed to acquire as surefire visitor draws, is meant to classify, not disparage. Some panders are more admirable than others.

When Theodore Reed, then director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, successfully lobbied to bring Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to Washington in 1972, for example, it was a win-win-win. Attendance went up, financial support increased, and the pair symbolized the zoo’s dedication to breeding rare species. (Reed died on July 2 at the age of 90, and his obituaries, in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, tell an inspiring story.)

In other panda news, Rusty the Red Panda (Beanie Baby available) disappeared from his enclosure at the National Zoo late last month. The alarm went out on Twitter. He was soon sighted in Adams-Morgan, caught red-handed, and returned to the zoo and his would-be mate, Shama.* Rusty’s excellent adventure was covered by, among others, the Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, local and network television, and the Huffington Post.

The zoo’s outreach to social and traditional media might be called a “lesser pander” (lesser being an alternate for red when one speaks of pandas). By a lesser pander, I mean an approach or a component adopted primarily for publicity or more elusive “buzz” purposes.

A lesser pander: One of the most satisfying small art exhibitions I’ve ever seen was “Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures,” presented in 1996-97 at the National Gallery of Art; the Yale University Art Gallery, where it was organized; and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Along with every known rowing-related painting and drawing by Eakins, the Yale installation included a actual scull that happened to belong to Meryl Streep.

Lesser panders run the gamut: orchestras accompanying classic films, theater productions employing local (or national) celebrities as actors, museums hosting exhibitions that tie in to licensed characters and merchandise.

I invite your submissions of giant and lesser panders undertaken by art museums, history museums, orchestras, chamber music series, opera companies, theater companies, dance companies, and other cultural presenters, including those you work for (anonymity protected).

Even when successful, giant panders can be dangerous to institutional identity. Lesser panders are relatively harmless, though they can be off-putting to certain audiences. However, a lesser pander can sometimes evolve into a giant (an evolutionary impossibility for the mammals).

Some classic giant panders for your consideration:

  • The Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum (1978)
  • BAM’s Next Wave Festival (1983)
  • Met Titles at the Metropolitan Opera (1995)
  • “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim (1998)

In next week’s post, assisted by your input, I will tackle what makes panders—that is, audience-focused initiatives—effective or ineffective.

* Actually, his paws appear to be brown or black.


2 thoughts on “Giant Panders and Lesser Panders

  1. I don’t think the social outreach for the missing red panda was a pander of any type. Given the National Zoo’s recent history of bad publicity from animals dying the red panda escape was only ‘good’ news if they got the panda back (and even then it begs questions of security, which for a zoo is seldom a ‘good’ question to be answering in the limelight).

    Rather, I think what we saw there was an outstanding use of social media; a willingness for the zoo to admit to a problem up front and ask for help. I doubt that they would have gotten the panda back without the level of outreach that they performed.

    Willie Don in togs… now that’s a pander.

    I think worse now of the National Zoo.

    And I am still trying to erase the mental image of Willie Don in togs…

  2. In the early ’80s, the Queens Museum located in the New York City Building in Flushing Meadow, N.Y. had a show entitled simply, “Cows”. It consisted on paintings dating from the Renaissance to the present. As the show’s name suggests, each painting featured one or more cows in various settings. To attract attention to the show, we set up a small “dairy farm” in he parking lot outside the museum’s entrance, complete with a cow or two, milking stools, etc. etc. For many city kids, this was the first time they had actually seen a cow and the first time they realized that milk comes from somewhere else before they pour it from a plastic container into their breakfast cereal.

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